Fixing Walt Coy’s Timeline Part 2

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I had to laugh when I realized that this Research post had its reference point centered in 1928 San Francisco, a time and a place about which I have written five other posts.

This time around it is a starting point for unraveling a timeline problem in the life history of Walt T. Coy, the stagehand whom I knew at the Fifth Avenue Theater in Seattle, Washington. Occasionally during the 11 month gig (June 1927 to May 1928) that the Herb Wiedoeft Band put in at the Trianon Dance Hall, Walt filled in for their drummer (Walt spelled his name as “Weidoff”). Herb got an offer from a major studio in Hollywood to score a picture. He did not have a regular place on the band for Walt just then, but dropped a hint that he might be able to use him if he happened to find himself down south.

Walt did pick up a job that would serve to that end. He joined the band on the H. F. Alexander, a passenger liner that sailed up and down the West Coast, making calls at Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Once the ship was beyond the three mile limit out came the booze without limit. When the ship called at San Francisco, Walt bought a San Francisco Examiner in which he learned to his dismay that Herb Wiedoeft had died as the result of an automobile accident.

I looked up the details about this event. Herb Wiedoeft died in Medford, Oregon on May 12th 1928, the day after the car accident. So, this places Walt in San Francisco, most likely in a seven day window after the accident. After this news Walt says he decided to try his hand at acting down in Hollywood. This seems logical because as I established in last week’s post, he already had some experience as an extra on the production of “The Patent Leather Kid,” the year before.

After the news in San Francisco, Walt records :

“Finding myself eventually in Los Angeles with a few extra nickels in my pocket, I decided to take a fling at being an actor. This turned out to be a rather short-lived adventure.

One of the studios I was in was called the Chaplin Studio – later changed to United Artists – and a Charlie Chaplin picture was in the process of being filmed. For a young fellow to be there, it was a big deal. Charlie Chaplin was a meticulous artist. The same scene was reshot hour after hour until it was perfect in Chaplin’s eyes. As young as I was then, I classified him as a perfectionist.” (from My Uncle Sam Don’t Like Me, page 67).

I confess I was really curious to know which Chaplin film this could be. According to his filmography, “The Circus” seemed to be closest in time, but it was released in January 1928. The next film in order was “City Lights” which was not released until 1931. I remembered that “City Lights” did have a longer than normal production period, so that seemed the logical place to start. (This Chaplin film is one of my all-time favorites, and in my opinion a masterwork).

One online source listed that it was in production from 12/31/1927 to 1/22/1931. This seemed to fit the bill easily, but what if the scenes employing extras were all before May 1928? So, I did more checking.

Variety gave the negative to that question, for it reported in their 1/29/1929 edition, that the Chaplin Studio had remained dormant for the first five months of the preceding year (1928).

Production reports for the studio indicate that Chaplin was working on the story for that time period, clear up to August of 1928, when set construction began. Another source confirms the construction month:

“Charlie Chaplin’s unit is building sets for “City Lights.” (from the Daily Exhibitors Review for 8/20/1928).

This very same article mentioned that Gloria Swanson’s “Queen Kelly” was to enter production after September 1st.

This gave me the idea to look into the Swanson picture. I thought that whatever time Walt spent as an extra on that film, might shed some light on his Chaplin Studio tenure.

“Queen Kelly” did not start on September 1st. In the trades there are articles showing it moving back and back. Finally Variety on 11/7/1928 (p 4) reported:

Los Angeles 11/6 – “Erich Von Stroheim’s second day directing “Queen Kelly” was a long one. During the day he worked on exteriors. In the evening, he came into the studio to kill one sequence with certain actors. There was a little delay in getting going, but the original plan was adhered to. It was 6:30 in the morning, when the troupe was dismissed. The call was for the following evening when the company again worked during the night.”

In the same edition of Variety (over on page 7) there is another short article that identifies the exteriors noted in the above quote.

Los Angeles 11/6 “…While the schedule calls for 10 weeks’ shooting it is deemed doubtful if this will be observed on account of the large number of mob scenes to be photographed out of doors – and the sun at this season is not dependable.”

Therefore, it would seem that Walt gained work as an extra on Von Stroheim’s “Queen Kelly,” before he was at the Chaplin Studio. Variety reported that the silent version of “Queen Kelly” was finished before Christmas. They then moved over to the Pathe Studios to work on the sound version, one for which they would not be needing extras, as only the leads had speaking parts. Things fell apart for Von Stroheim with the new year (1929), he was fired off the production and another director brought in for the dialog version. It was all a big mess after that. In fact, “Queen Kelly” was released in Europe and South America but never saw the light of a theater projector in the US (it was televised in the 1960s).

[Aside – with one exception – there was a clip from “Queen Kelly” that was inserted into Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard,” whose cast included Gloria Swanson and Erich Von Stroheim.]

This dovetails nicely with the start of filming for “City Lights.” I could not find any proof that Chaplin had ever pointed a camera at any extras in 1928. But once 1929 rolled around, (and Walt would have been looking for extra work after “Queen Kelly”), I found some substantial proofs. Variety again (for 2/6/1929, page 7):

Los Angeles 2/5 – Charles Chaplin after many delays has started “City Lights.” Previously he had done some work alone, but now he is surrounded by Virginia Cherrill, leading woman; Henry Clive, Henry Bergman, and Harry Crocker.

There are two sequences in the beginning of “City Lights” that called for lots of extras. Both, I believe, were filmed in the first two months of 1929.

The first was a scene where the Tramp character (“working alone” – i.e. not with named performers) fidgets with a stick that is stuck in a sidewalk grate. A ton of extras pass back and forth in the background. The sequence was cut from the release print, but you can view it in the Kevin Brownlow limited series, “The Unknown Chaplin.”

(The cut sequence from “City Lights.”)

The second scene covers the meeting between the Tramp and a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill). I like to think that Walt was present for this segment. It does seem to fit his description above (“The same scene was reshot hour after hour”), for Chaplin famously took 342 takes on this very scene.

I watched both sequences with an eye to catch a glimpse of Walt, but I could not make him out anywhere – but I guess that is the purpose of an extra, to be an unrecognizable presence.

The Chaplin Studio shut down production on “City Lights” from mid-February until April 1st. Illness in the cast was the main cause, including Chaplin himself who was sent home with ptomaine poisoning (Variety 2/27/1929). When Charlie returned he again tackled the meeting scene with the blind flower girl (a scene that he would revisit in December, and again in 1930).

It is my guess that Walt left Los Angeles when production halted in February, and went back to Seattle. And his future involvement in film making was from the other side of the camera.

The Illusive Midshipman Charles Polhemus

The Illusive Midshipman Charles Polhemus

Probably the most difficult midshipman to get a bead on was Charles Polhemus. I first looked him up back in 2009, with nothing but the slimmest of clues. I had no indication, where he had been born or from what state he had been appointed.

I concentrated on the censuses for 1850 and 1860 and got a hit on a Charles G. Polhemus of NY. Though each census showed a different NY county, I knew him to be the same individual in both because the other family members’ given names were the same in each instance, with a corresponding increase in ages. And the ages listed for Charles was on track to be my midshipman, but there was nothing else that confirmed that he was the actual person for whom I was looking. I noted down the details from the two censuses, hoping to track down some links that could corroborate his identity.

Many people with the name Polhemus popped up for the state of New Jersey, and in particular Burlington County, but no one there matched my midshipman. So, Charles G of NY was looking more and more plausible. Besides I learned that “Polhemus” was of Dutch origin which again can fit nicely with the Knickerbocker state. Further research revealed that this Charles Polhemus served in the Civil War in a New York Regiment, the 13th Heavy Artillery – a fact that would not be unusual, as other midshipmen had switched from webfeet to landlubbers, especially those middies who had resigned from the Academy.

But it was all a false trail.

When I found the list of the candidates for examination for the Naval Academy, I filled in some important details for my illusive Charles Polhemus. He held an appointment from the 2nd Congressional District of New Jersey (which includes Burlington County) and  passed his examinations on 9/26/1857. The possibility that the Charles G from NY was my midshipman began to dim. (Not totally, as I had come across appointments that originated from one state even though the candidate lived in another – especially when the appointing Congressman was a relative).

And so things sat for several years.

With the inclusion recently of the naval hospital records on Ancestry.com, I was able to zero in on the right Charles Polhemus.  For three days in November 1857, Charles was admitted to the naval academy hospital for bronchitis.  As with all the Acting Midshipman admitted, their place of birth was recorded. C. Polhemus was born in Chile. This “rare” tidbit combined with the other data that has accumulated on the internet in the intervening years gave me the breakthrough I needed.

This Charles Polhemus was related to the New Jersey family that I had run across earlier. His father was John Hart Polhemus sr., who was a grandson (and namesake) of John Hart, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. John moved down to South America sometime in the late 1820s and entered into business.  In Lima Peru he met and married an English woman Marianna Dean on August 28, 1836. My Charles was born to the couple in Valparaiso, Chile on December 27, 1841. Some sources state that President Andrew Jackson had named John, the American consul in Valparaiso.

As you can guess, there was a very good reason then for the family of my midshipman not to show up in my earlier searches of the US census for 1850.  They were out of the country. The future midshipman returned to the US from Valparaiso on February 8, 1851 entering through Baltimore, with two of his brothers (their mother had died in Peru in 1849).

And there is another good reason why my midshipman is missing in the 1860 census.

Charles’ naval career was very brief. Having entered the Naval Academy in the fall of 1857, he resigned six months later – though  not through overindulgence in demerit worthy activity. His demerit total stood at 108 for that time period, half of what would have called for dismissal. (He did have a notable doozy, receiving 6 demerits for throwing a fellow midshipman down the stairs. And he evidently had a problem keeping his room clean, being cited a total of ten times for a dirty room – I have a suspicion he relied on servants at home for that chore). As the saying goes, he bilged (i.e. failed) in the February academic exams. The family genealogy shows that Charles died at sea on December 2, 1858, nine months after leaving the Academy.

I am in the dark about the circumstances behind his death. Had he gone to sea in the merchant marine? Was he out on a pleasure craft, or merely taking passage on a commercial carrier? Was he lost overboard or did he go down with his ship? I can only speculate.

For now, this final detail about Midshipman Charles Polhemus remains illusive.